With many veteran sitcoms (New Girl, Parks and Recreation, to a certain extent Bob's Burgers) struggling to consistently reach the heights they have in the past, the year in comedy was to me primarily about the new shows on the block. Three of those shows are included here, where they join a quartet of esteemed dramas (three from cable, plus one network standout) to make up my picks for the seven finest television programs I saw in 2013-14.
Massive spoilers for The Good Wife (and minor spoilers for everything else) after the jump:
Comedy Central's Review boasts many aspects that make it one of the year's finest new comedies. To begin with, there's the brilliantly layered storytelling; what begins as a series centered around a clever concept—a reviewer who critiques life experiences—soon becomes a brutally hilarious character piece centered around said reviewer. Andy Daly's performance as Forrest MacNeil is a thing of beauty: his veneer of critical professionalism soon giving way to a portrayal of a man being destroyed in body, mind, and spirit by his show. As his cohost A.J. Gibbs (an equally fantastic Megan Stevenson) looks on with increasing horror and pity, each segment seems to take Forrest further and further into a waking nightmare. And not coincidentally, Review just keeps getting funnier and funnier. It's consistently absurd stuff, but Stevenson, Daly, and the writing managed to keep the whole thing weirdly grounded, and the finale delivered several moments of emotional catharsis that are both surprising and powerfully earned. I hope Forrest and company come back for a second season, but if they don't, their tale will rank as one of the best single-season shows in recent memory.
6. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Considering what a relatively down year it's been for the network sitcom, calling Brooklyn Nine-Nine the best of the season is to some degree faint praise. So in the interests of capturing just how much I love this show, here's another, slightly bolder statement: this is the finest first season of a network comedy I've seen since Arrested Development. (And there have been some pretty darn good ones since then.) It's not that there weren't a few bumps in the early going; initially the series leaned too heavily on the dynamic between the goofy but brilliant Jake Peralta and the stone-faced Ray Holt (Andre Braugher, currently giving one of the funniest performances on TV). But even at this early stage it was still reliably funny, and it improved at a rapid pace over the course of the fall. By the time the spring rolled around, it was churning out hysterical episodes just about every single week, and its cast had established itself as the most consistently hilarious ensemble on the air right now. With the zone the show is in right now in terms of both writing and acting, there's every indication Brooklyn Nine-Nine could get even better in season two. But it doesn't really need to. Merely equaling what it achieved in this stellar debut year would very likely keep it near the top of the comedy world for years to come.
5. Mad Men
If it's possible for a season of Mad Men to sneak up on you, then that's exactly what the first half of the show's swan song did. It's not that I wasn't looking forward to it, but the splitting of the season (not to mention it beginning right as several other dramas were reaching staggeringly high mid-season peaks) kept my enthusiasm relatively muted in the weeks leading up to the premiere. As it turns out, that was foolish. Judging by these first seven episodes, the show seems intent on going out with one of its best seasons ever, as its characters circle (but don't necessarily achieve) various breakthroughs—personal, professional, and psychological—in their dissatisfied lives. The result? Just about as fine a stretch as the series has ever had. My one reservation with the season may not come as a surprise: "The Runaways", otherwise known as the "weird episode a lot of people like, but I don't" that seems to be a requirement for the majority of Mad Men seasons. And it does lose a few points for this. When you're airing this few episodes, even one somewhat lackluster outing tends to stand out. At one point I was even debating leaving this great series off the top ten for the second year in a row. But then those last two episodes arrived: two hours as rich in history and emotion as any in the show's history, each featuring several notes of quiet (if not entirely fulfilled) hope that were just beautifully observed. Message received, Mad Men. I will not underestimate you again.
4. The Good Wife
22-episode seasons of television drama aren't usually this good. While I'll concede a certain lack of expertise in this area, I can think of only one this century (season two of Alias) that comes close to delivering the level of episode to episode quality and narrative daring that The Good Wife did this year. And I liked this season quite a bit better; four prior years of backstory (as opposed to only one for Alias) meant the show had a larger sense of history and character to draw on, and it made use of it to stunning effect while taking the same kinds of chances. The season's two defining moments are of course the complete upending of everything that is "Hitting the Fan" and the death of Will Gardner later in the season. But we also saw the series demonstrate its willingness to experiment on the level of individual episodic structure: such as its eschewing of any sort of courtroom tussling whatsoever in two of the season's other standout episodes ("A Few Words" and "The Last Call"). None of this is to say that The Good Wife stopped being The Good Wife. Indeed, the show's legal battles have never been smarter or more consistently entertaining than they were this season. Nor has the dialogue ever been sharper. This has always been been one of the best things on broadcast television, but (like most network dramas) the sheer difficulty of maintaining both consistency and momentum over the course of such a long season means that it's never quite managed to crack TV's upper tier. This year, it did.
3. The Americans
My feelings about season two of The Americans are not much of a secret to anyone who’s read any of my previous posts on the subject (or follows me on Twitter, where I’ve been saying some variation of “holy crap, The Americans” pretty much every week over the past few months). Suffice to say it was a tension-filled masterpiece, putting off the question of just how long it’s possible to sustain this high-wire premise for at least another year by drawing its suspense less from from gasp-worthy plot twists and more from sustained psychological wear and tear. Most of the gasps, when they did come, instead arose from how tightly wound these characters have become. The acting is some of the best on TV, with the performers subtly conveying the psychological strain their characters are under in each glance, gesture, and word: only occasionally allowing more explosive emotions to shine through. Because they can't, due to the lives they're leading. (That's what made the season's ninth episode, "Martial Eagle", so powerful; it was the result of eight episodes of pent-up emotion from a character who's done terrible things on behalf of his country.) The show's thematic musings are vast: touching on topics as varied as ideological divides, generational differences, and marital and intrafamilial strife. But at its heart, The Americans is about how difficult, terrifying, and emotionally taxing living a life of deceit truly is: a foundation that it seems set to expand on when it returns for season three. Best drama on television right now? Heck yes. No doubt in my mind.
2. Breaking Bad
But as far as the title of best drama of this past year is concerned, it had to be Breaking Bad. It just had to be. Sure, there are quibbles I could make in regards to the near-perfect second half of season five, if I was so inclined. While I think "Granite State" and "Felina" are both very good episodes of television (and strongly disagree with those who have argued that the latter represents Vince Gilligan selling out or letting Walt off the hook), part of me wishes the series had gone with something a bit more earth-shattering: something that would have made my jaw drop the way the final installments of The Shield and The Sopranos did. But it strikes me as ungrateful to complain too much, when the season as a whole so consistently went above and beyond Bad's own sky-high standards for tension, emotional brutality, and visual poetry. The show's Western elements have never been as resonant as they were here, and I'm not just referring to the desert landscapes that form the backdrop of the fateful confrontation connecting the end "To'hajiilee" with the beginning of "Ozymandias" (the high point of the season, and arguably the two greatest episodes of the entire series). No, Breaking Bad, as it has always done, made equally profound use of its interior spaces as a setting for various two-character standoffs, each of which felt more apocalyptic than the one preceding it. Even before we got out into that desert, it was clear that the consequences of the past four and a half seasons were going to be far-reaching and devastating. A brilliant, shattering end to an all-time great drama.
1. Broad City
Good lord, this show. For all my love of Review, Rick and Morty, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I haven't been this instantly floored by a recent comedy series since . . . I don't know, maybe Party Down? From the very first episode, everything about Broad City was just perfectly executed: extended pieces of physical comedy performed so well that they never overstayed their welcome, the sharpest and most precise editing of any comedy on TV (the show's habit of cutting to commercial right in the middle of someone screaming or fainting is absolutely glorious), and hilarious dialogue delivered with impeccable timing by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. The result? Ten triumphant episodes, each of which exuded a level of confidence and a sense of comedic style—some of the best running gags are based wholly around the way the show is directed and edited—that was just exhilarating to watch. Picking a favorite is almost impossible; I'd probably go with "Destination: Wedding", but "Pu$$y Weed", "The Lockout", "Apartment Hunters", "Working Girls", and "The Last Supper" are all tour de force half hours of television comedy as well. Heck, they all are; there's really not a less than stellar episode in the bunch. This is more than just one of the strongest debuts in TV comedy history. It's a season of television that's as funny as any I've seen. Ever. Some might scoff at the notion of this series beating out the likes of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Americans for the top spot of such a fantastic year of TV. To those people, I say: scoff all you want. I'll be over here, watching Broad City, and laughing myself silly.